Indonesia Has Hundreds of Indigenous Religions. So Why are They Only Being Recognized Now?
Badui tribesmen in Kanekes village, on the outskirts of Lebak district. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters


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Indonesia Has Hundreds of Indigenous Religions. So Why are They Only Being Recognized Now?

Local faiths may have sprung from Indonesian soil, but they fell out of favor long ago. Now, a court ruling hopes to reverse this discrimination. Will it work?

Pungkas Singaraska is a believer of the old ways. He practices Kejawen, an ancient faith with roots in the Indonesian island of Java. The faith predates the arrival of Islam in Indonesia by more than a century, but it has now incorporated aspects of the Muslim faith into its belief structure. Today, Kejawen is an amalgamation, a faith that mixes parts of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam with older Javanese animist beliefs. It's a mystical faith, one of spirits and spells and it's deeply connected to traditional Javanese culture.


But that doesn't necessary mean it's accepted. For his entire life, Pungkas has dealt with people who told him that his beliefs were wrong. His family and neighbors told him that he had to convert to "the right path" and stop with all these outdated mystical ideas. Islam is the predominant religion of modern day Java, and the followers of these older faiths are seen by many as backwards. By refusing to change, Pungkas has suffered a lifetime of discrimination for following a faith with roots right in his own backyard.

"I can't pray with my community because we've gotten so much pressure from the neighborhood," Pungkas told VICE. "Now I just pray alone, in secret, at my house. There's a holy site in Yogyakarta that's supposed to be our place to pray, but we don't dare go there. People from mainstream religions still think our prayers are deviant and weird. They always shake their heads when they see us."

The Constitutional Court took the biggest step toward standardizing the acceptance of indigenous faiths this week when judges ruled that the followers for about 245 native religions could write the catch-all "Believers of the Faith," in the religion field of their national identity card. Indonesia is constitutionally a pluralistic nation, but it's one where you have to be a follower of one of six state-supported religions: Islam, Catholicism, Christianity (Protestantism), Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.


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For decades, the followers of local indigenous religions like Kejawen had to either leave the religion field blank or select one of the six acceptable faiths. That's how a lot of Kejawen believers became Muslim, or why the Dayak people, followers of their own Kaharingan religion, suddenly saw their religion listed as Hindu on their government IDs.

"In order to survive, I have the religion column of my government ID filled in with Islam," Pungkas told VICE. "We have no choice. The situation forced us to do this, because otherwise we would be discriminated against whenever we try to access public services."

This is the dark side of Indonesia's pluralism. The Muslim-majority country continues to earn accolades worldwide as a place of tolerance and acceptance, but, for decades, that only counted if you were a follower of one of the state-sponsored faiths.

For the hundreds of thousands of followers of indigenous religions, the Big Six were a steamroller running over their own local beliefs in an effort to unify disparate parts of this wildly diverse nation under the banner of shared religion. It's why the Bayan people of Lombok are still called "primitive" and "deviant" by Sunni Muslims for practicing their own version of Islam—Welu Telu. A lot of people today look down on the old ways as little more than outdated faiths.

Indigenous peoples activists welcomed the Constitutional Court decision as a necessary step toward addressing a long-pressing issue. But it's going to take more than a court ruling to reverse decades of discrimination and cultural assimilation, explained Rukka Sombolinggi, the general secretary of the non-profit that advocates for the rights of indigenous people that goes by the acronym AMAN.


"The Constitutional Court's ruling is long overdue," Rukka told VICE. "At least now native faith believers have legal protection. But legal protection doesn't guarantee the discrimination will stop."

Followers of local faiths previously struggled to receive basic government documents, like marriage and birth certificates, because the state wouldn't recognize their religion. These issues later have add-on effects, making it difficult for them to access health care, education, and other government-funded social services.

Nationwide, instances of religious intolerance continue to plague Indonesia. In 2016 alone, the Setara Institute, a nonprofit which focuses on intolerance issues, recorded 208 instances of religious discrimination in 24 provinces. Almost all of them were instances where a group, usually with the tacit support of local authorities, had tried to prevent someone from practicing their own religion.

For many, the response to this kind of discrimination has been to adapt. Many indigenous peoples have now folded their local beliefs into one of the dominate religions, creating their own syncretic version Christianity or Islam. In the highlands of South Sulawesi, the Torajan people incorporated their old beliefs about death and the afterlife into Christianity with surprising success. Today, the two faiths are intertwined to create a version of Christianity where ritual buffalo sacrifice still has a home. But in other communities, the old ways aren't as easily accepted.


"The pressure to convert to one of the six recognized faiths still exists," Rukka told VICE. "I have also seen a lot of religious figures in villages try to convert indigenous peoples."

Other experts wonder why the state is so involved in religion in the first place. The constitution places the belief in one god as central to the foundations of the nation, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the central government needs to regulate religion to this degree. Samsul Maarif, of the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) at the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, explained that this government overreach actually has its roots in Suharto-era efforts to control and manipulate the population.

The New Order regime were behind the official designation of "acceptable" religions. In 1978, Gen. Suharto's government announced that there were five recognized religions—Confucianism wasn't given the state's approval because the regime was obsessed with wiping out Chinese culture, to the point that it required all ethnic Chinese citizens to change their last names and banned any outward displays of Chinese culture.

Suharto's regime conducted a census of everyone's religious beliefs in order to make apparent the differences between people as part of a system of control, Samsul explained. While Sukarno had tried to unite the nation through, among other things, a shared lingua franca, the Suharto regime reminded everyone just how different they all were.


"The state is perpetuating a system of faith-based political recognition," Samsul said. "By doing so, religion was used to differentiate one citizen from another."

Before independence there were an estimated 396 different native faiths in Central Java alone. Today, at least 60 of these religions have gone extinct, Tedi Kholiluddin, the director of the Religion and Social Studies Institute (Elsa), told Tempo. The main cause? Government and societal pressure to convert to an accepted faith.

The situation worsened under the leadership of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with the passage of the "religious harmony law"—a law that recast the nation as a country of six equal religions to one of one major faith (Islam) and five other minority religions. Under the law, minority religions were required to respect the wishes of the majority—going as far as requiring minority religion practitioners to gather the signatures of their community before opening a house of worship.

If Suharto's policies reinforced the differences between all Indonesians, SBY's administration codified the inherent imbalances in a country where 87 percent of the population identifies as Sunni Muslim. Harmony was now in the eye of the majority, a fact that made life difficult for members of religious minorities and near impossible for those who followed indigenous, but still unrecognized, faiths.

In 2014, President Joko Widodo's administration made life a little easier for indigenous peoples by allowing them to leave the religion field on their government ID blank. In the past you had to select one of the six faiths, regardless of your actual beliefs.

The court ruling opened the door to the state's acceptance of local religions, but it also potentially created a situation where it's easier to identify, and persecute, followers of indigenous faiths. Pungkas told VICE he was wary of putting "Believers of the Faith," on his government ID. The courts may have ruled in his favor, but the Ministry of Religious Affairs still only represents the six major religions.

"I think it's safer if the religion column on the ID card is left blank," Pungkas told VICE. "I'm afraid now that we can fill in the column, there will be even more pressure from society to change."

Meanwhile, while the court's decision addressed the discrimination of followers of indigenous religions, it didn't touch on faiths considered "deviant" like Ahmadiyah Muslims or the Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar). Both faiths, each of them an offshoot of mainstream Islam, continue to be the subject of widespread persecution.

That's why, court decision or not, Pungkas believes that the country is still a far way from accepting religions like his own. It's going to take more than a line on a government ID to change something like that.